Exclusive Look: Smile

Ready, Set, Flirt

The lights were blinding. It was something that they always said about being on stage or a film set, but you never really understood just how intensely the bulbs burned until they were focused on you. Cheryl found herself blinking hard just from walking out onto the soundstage, and they hadn’t even put the spotlight on her yet. She hadn’t understood why the girl backstage had slathered her up with so much makeup, but now she got it. It didn’t just have to hold up to the scrutiny of everybody watching, it had to hold up to the blazing lights. The blush still had to look like a blush in the fog-light glare of the halogens. It would have taken all of that just to keep people looking human under the white shine.

That was only problem number one. Problem number two was that she was already starting to sweat through the makeup. She wished that she’d worn something less conservative so that she wouldn’t roast under the lights like she was trapped in an Easy-Bake oven, but she was going to be on national television. She couldn’t have people looking at her and thinking that she was… that way. It was bad enough that they were going to be making a joke about her massaging her boss, and her cleavage was pretty out there, even for the kind of fashion that was okay nowadays. And her hair, she loved her hair all feathered out and everyone said she looked amazing, but my god was it hot under here.

Going on a dating show like this, was already kind of embarrassing. Like she was admitting to the whole world that she couldn’t find a guy for herself. She could. Of course, she could, she just had standards. And even if she didn’t have standards, who wouldn’t want a moment in the limelight? She was pretty sure that some of the contestants that had been on before already had boyfriends of their own, but they just wanted the whole world to see their pretty faces.

Well, why shouldn’t Cheryl get her chance? She’d heard that some of the girls who went on these shows ended up getting jobs in Hollywood after folks saw how good they looked on the TV screen. Why couldn’t that happen for her too? She deserved it as much as anybody.

Everything blitzed by in a confusing buzz. There were so many people all around her, that she didn’t even realise that Jim Lange was right there at her side until a few minutes after he’d popped up and introduced himself. After his brief introduction, he seemed completely oblivious to her, standing on his marked spot on the floor, checking that the cameras were focused on him, and him alone. He was practising his smile, over and over again, staring into the camera. A little cock of the head and a grin, a signature move that she’d seen on her own television a million times and never considered was anything but natural. It felt wrong to be on this side of the screen. Like she’d fallen down a rabbit hole into wonderland.

There were cards in Jim’s hands. The questions she’d be asking the bachelors. They’d all been read to her backstage before they started, while she was still in the makeup chair, then a clipboard with those questions had been pressed into her hands so she could read them for herself, over and over, so that she wouldn’t mess up any of her lines. It was almost a joke. She’d be introduced by Jim, she’d ask her questions when prompted by Jim, she’d laugh or nod or shake her head when the bachelors answered the questions with their own pre-prepared answers, and at the end, she’d pick whichever one of them had the nicest voice, because she knew that the answers to the questions didn’t mean a thing.

Then the frenzy of motion all around her abruptly stopped. All the crew that had been scuttling around like an overturned anthill suddenly vanished back into the woodwork. The live studio audience – that the television had always told her the Dating Game was filmed in front of – filed in to take their seats in what looked like rickety metal bleachers. Then just as all the crew had faded away to nothing, so too did all of them, they’d barely been visible beyond the lights before and now that they were silent, it was as if she was all alone in the world, the only eyes on her the shining lenses of the cameras.

She was led offstage by one of the production hands and placed on the exact spot from which she would soon make her entrance. They waited as the music played, then Jim said “Good evening” and they went through the show’s usual introductory spiel. It was so familiar that it almost felt like home, the same voice, the same music, but it was bigger and more real, not like the tiny sound of Cheryl’s television set back home. There was no static buzzing at the periphery of her vision, no chance a strong wind might knock out the signal completely. This was really happening, she was in TV land with all these other TV characters, and if they liked her enough, she’d get to stay.

The different bachelors were all introduced and right off the bat she knew who she was going to pick, a photographer who liked skydiving? Nobody was going to top that, she couldn’t even imagine all the excitement that he could bring to her life, even if it was only one date. She’d have a blast with that guy, and more importantly, it would keep her here, in the limelight, in the spotlight. A photographer would get her into Hollywood parties and know all the best people, this guy could totally change her life.

She didn’t miss her cue, but that was only because as Jim was saying the word “Bachelorette”, the production assistant grabbed her by the arms and bodily pushed her out in the direction of those damned lights once more.

She was blind in the first instant that she stepped out, only able to keep moving thanks to the practice runs they’d already put her through all day. She didn’t need to see to know that looming shadowy figure was Jim Lange, any more than she needed to know the way to the upright stool where she’d have to perch herself like a prize on a pedestal all the way through the show. She’d tread the path a dozen times before, and the fact that this was the real Jim instead of his stand-in made no difference. She smiled for the cameras the way that she was meant to, never looking at them, only at Jim and the audience, so that everything seemed casual and fun. It felt like the false face that they’d plastered over hers might crack at any moment.

Then she made her first mistake. She wasn’t meant to be going to the chair yet, she had to go and be introduced by Jim, to have a little witty repartee, to show everyone what a catch she was and why they should keep on bringing her onto TV. And right off the bat, she was already screwing up. She was tripping over her words, even as Jim told the embarrassing story about how she lost her job when one of the men had asked her for a massage, all she managed to muster was an embarrassed smile. Come on Cheryl, get it together, this is a live studio audience, there is no do-over, there is just here and now to get everything perfect, to make the whole world love her.

She’d missed some of what was being said after her moment of being flustered, but now she was being steered towards her little seat in the middle of nowhere and the cards were in her hands. She could do this. She remembered this from practice. From seeing a hundred other girls do it on TV, just the same.

Then from the other side of the divider, she heard his voice. “We’re going to have a great time together, Cheryl.”

It should have slowed the hammering of her heart but instead, it made it beat faster. It wasn’t that he knew her name, or that he’d said it with such absolute confidence that he was going to win, even though she knew he was, it was something else, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

She pushed it aside, took a deep breath, focussed on the questions in her hands. Remembered what she was meant to say. The other two introduced themselves too, but the buzzing in her ears as she quashed her panic drowned them out.

Then it was her turn to talk. She put on the voice she’d been practising in the mirror for weeks, the best TV personality voice she could muster, like the girls who presented the weather after the news, all accent stripped away, big enunciations of every word so that there could be no accusations of mumbling. “Bachelor number one, what is your best time of day?”

It was such a nonsense question, she’d be amazed if anyone could come up with an answer that actually made sense. It was like asking what your favourite colour was. A nothing question that told you nothing about the person.

“The best time is at night.” Bachelor number one replied without hesitation. “Night time.”

It sent a prickle up her back all over again. That same smooth confident voice. The subtle implications of spending the night with him and what that might entail. Trying to keep the conversation going instead of showing herself to be a total airhead on TV, Cheryl asked him, “Why do you say that?”

As if there was anything more to what he was saying than the same stupid double entendres they shoved into every episode of this show.

“Because that is the only time that there is.”

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